Freshly stamped out of South Africa and into Lesotho, I get to my first police stop not more than 30km from the Telle Bridge Border Post.
Before my departure I’ve heard about these, apparently notorious, police stops and figured that with some respect, a smile, two emergency triangles, all papers and licenses in order and sticking to the speed limit, I’d be fine.
“lumela,” says the friendly police officer, “Where are you going?”
“I’m off to Semonkong,” I reply.
“You? Alone? Why are you travelling alone,” he asks.
It has been brought to my attention at the border post that travelling alone in Lesotho is quite rare and strange for a female.
“Well sir, you see, I like taking photos and if I have passengers they get so impatient with me.”
With laughter that could move the Maloti Mountains, he says, “Have a safe trip” and waved me goodbye.
Two more of those, apparently notorious, police stops followed within the next two hours and I had to explain again why I’m travelling solo while another officer checked the car’s license registration. At the third stop the female officer just wanted to make sure everything is okay and that I am safe.
And that was it. No problem, no hassle, nothing notorious. Just smiles, waves and, albeit the nippy temperatures, a warm welcome to the Kingdom in the Sky.
TRAVEL PLANNING: Quick Guide to Lesotho: Visa-free travel for South Africans
There’s more to Lesotho than just Sani Pass
Sani Pass has been synonymous with Lesotho ever since the road was built in the 1950s. For off-road enthusiasts the combination of hairpin bends, plunging drops and steep gradients is a rite of and a valid excuse to get into those low range gears and crawl your way to the top to enjoy a cold one, or some gluhwein, at *Africa’s highest pub.
Off-road enthusiast that I am, plus, on this trip I am driving the very capable Isuzu mu-X with a ground clearance of 230 mm, traction and hill descent control and all the goodies to ensure that I don’t skid off the face of the roof of Africa, but responsible is something I am as well.
With no passengers, or other vehicles joining me, and a time constraint of about a week I chose to bid Sani Pass farewell for this trip and shifted my focus to experience a combination of the lowlands and the highlands of the mountain kingdom and it did not take too long before I discovered that there’s so much more to Lesotho than just the Sani Pass.
I quickly realised that – apart from Maseru’s Friday traffic – the landscapes and sights of the world’s southernmost landlocked country are not scattered throughout an area of 30 355 km², it dominates the entirety of the country.
Getting high in Lesotho is a given and at Semonkong, situated about 130 km from Maseru’s border post, there is a Guinness World Record to prove it.
Maletsunyane Falls is one of the highest single dropping falls in Africa and as the water crashes into a beautiful gorge it gives meaning to the name Semonkong, place of smoke. But it is also a place of adventure. Semonkong Lodge holds the title of the longest commercially operated single-drop abseil at 204 metres , making the ‘Place of Smoke’ a tangible experience as one is suspended mid-air. But if you’re singing ‘don’t go chasing waterfalls’ then Semonkong Lodge also offers less nail-biting adventures in the form of guided hiking trails, cultural tours, pony treks, fly fishing and mountain biking or you can just sit on the restaurant’s stoep, order some hot chocolate, get cozy with Butternut the resident cat, and watch the peaceful traffic of horses, donkeys and goats crossing the bridge.
But all that is high and mighty in the mountain kingdom doesn’t stop there.
Lesotho is also home to Africa’s highest dam, the Katse Dam. And getting to the dam from the western side is a picturesque highlight on its own when you travel via the winding road of the Mafika Lisiu Pass, taking you up to 3090 metres, pass Bokong Nature Reserve and into the village of Ha Lejone that is home to a trout farm and a high altitude training facility.
Ha Lejone is also your first glimpse of Katse Dam and as you travel the 50 km to the dam wall, you start to understand the enormity of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The closer you get, and the more water you see, the bigger the reality of the opportunity to come face to face with an engineering masterpiece, Africa’s Mona Lisa of dams.
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As you walk inside the dam wall 30 metres of cement sits between you and one of the world’s largest concrete arch dams that has a capacity of almost 2 million cubic metres. On the other side water gushes through a sluice at 1000 litres per second. Your dam tour ticket also gets you face to face with the Mona Lisa of aloes, Lesotho’s national flower, the spiral aloe. Before the inundation of the Katse reservoir, indigenous plants of Lesotho were rescued in the area and Katse Botanic Garden were created to house these rescued plants. While it strives to promote the conservation of indigenous plants, it also serves as an educational centre of alpine flora and at the nursery you can take a piece of Lesotho’s floral kingdom home with you, with a legal piece of paper for the border crossing.
Finding peace in a park
Lesotho is home to two national parks, and the tamer one of the two is Ts'ehlanyane National Park, just 50 km from Caledonspoort Border Post and 350 km from Johannesburg. Unlike South Africa’s national parks game drives are not an option, but while the game is shy, the park is fully stocked with tranquility that wraps you in the arms of nature. There is basic accommodation at the park’s entrance (camping, dormitories and a 6-sleeper guesthouse) and the private Maliba Lodge situated within the park boasts the title of being Lesotho’s only five star accommodation with its mountain chalets, spa and fine-dining restaurant. But, if that doesn’t fit your budget there is also a bistro and more affordable accommodation down by the river, close to the rock pools that are perfect for a dip after going on one of the hiking trails the park has to offer, or perhaps after a day of horse-riding. The park also makes a great base for those who want to explore the Tsikoane and Liphofung Caves, dinosaur footprints and Afriski is only two hours away if you want to split your time in Lesotho between relaxation and adventure.
Lesotho is one of those places where the journey is the destination and where the destination is the journey. Prepare to be surprised - wherever you go, wherever you turn – not only by what you see, but also by its accessibility and affordability.
Quick tips for a road trip in Lesotho
- Don’t let the lack of a 4x4 stand in the way between you and your adventure in Lesotho. The main roads are perfectly tarred.
- Use a GPS or Google Maps instead of going for a pull-out map (the majority of maps are outdated). If you stay on the main roads (and know which direction you’re going and the name of a few main town) it is actually easy to find your way.
- Get a local sim card, Vodacom Lesotho’s data is as low as R50 for more than 1GB and widely available with excellent coverage. If your phone doesn’t change your internet settings automatically, call the free number and they’ll guide you through it.
- Familiarise yourself with the necessary vehicle papers you need to have when crossing the border (different requirements for travelling in your own car, someone else’s and a rental).
- Always expect the unexpected on the road and stick to the speed limits.
- Take two emergency triangles.
- Book ahead in high season.
- Don’t fool yourself into thinking that 120 km will take you one hour; allow enough time to reach your destination.
- If you are unsure of the road conditions, call your accommodation to find out.
- Don’t travel down dirt roads in a sedan if you haven’t done some research on the road, the same goes for 4x4s, knowledge is power (just ask those who have wrecked their vehicles on the infamous Baboon’s Pass).
- Black ice and snow is a reality, don’t get yourself into a dangerous situation on the roads.
- You’ll find the basic necessities at shops in villages and a bigger variety in Roma, Maseru and Butha Buthe.
- Wild camping is allowed but always ask for permission from the village chief; a lot of lodges have camping grounds available.
- Ask before you take a photo of someone in Lesotho.
- Avoid Maseru’s border post (if you can) on a Friday; Caledonspoort (close to Clarens) and Telle Bridge (close to Aliwal North) are more than often quiet.
- Always be aware of your distances and how much fuel is left in your tank. Formal fuel stations are popular around Roma, Maseru and Butha Buthe (plus fuel is cheaper in Lesotho than in South Africa).
- Check your spare tyre and know how to change a tyre.
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